Off with their heads! Christian “tax dodgers” face death sentence in Rome!

Josephus records that a universal retributive tax, collected by the ‘Fiscus Iudaicus’, was imposed on Jews by Vespasian following the Jewish War of 66-73CE and that it was levied without age limit on all Jews, and on their slaves.[1] Suetonius’ description of the physical examination of a ninety year old man in court to see if he was circumcised can be taken as evidence that there was no upper age limit.[2] The penalties for evasion were harsh and included confiscation of property and the death penalty.

While synagogue attending adult male Jews paying their ‘Temple Tax’[3] could be easily identified, we have no record of how the identification of non-observant Jews, younger males, women, and slaves, all of whom now came within the scope of the tax, was made. For Jewish Christians any aversion to paying the tax, which was used to rebuild the temple of Zeus in Rome, needed to be balanced against the penalties for evasion. For Gentile Christians, who were probably regarded at this time as a Jewish sect, paying the tax voluntarily may have been preferable to the charge of atheism, from which Jews were exempt, since ‘Christianity’ forbade absolutely any involvement with pagan gods.

A start date of 85CE under Domitian for the harsh extraction of all taxes appears the most likely and also correlates with Suetonius’ assertion that Domitian had got into financial difficulties.[4] The use of ‘delatores’, informers who benefited financially, and the collection of taxes ‘acerbissime’, required the Fiscus to prosecute rigorously all who sought to evade it. Those prosecuted would have been the richer members of society since it would have profited the Fiscus informers little to pursue the poor.[5]

Under Domitian the tax was extended to “those who without publicly acknowledging that faith yet lived as Jews, as well as those who concealed their origin”.[6] Gentile Christians who previously could not be prosecuted for evasion of the Jewish tax now came to the attention of the Fiscus under this new definition. Domitian is then said to have issued a decree that anyone who confessed to being a ‘Christian’ should be killed and their property seized;[7] they then had a choice – apostatise or pay the tax.

On becoming emperor in 96CE Nerva reformed the Jewish Tax.[8] Some scholars argue that the tax was abolished at this time but the evidence is inconclusive.[9] Origen writing at the beginning of the third century CE is quite positive that Jews were still required to pay the tax, so any abolition must have been of a temporary nature.[10]

David Coplowe


Primary Sources

CPJ, Corpus Papyrorum Judaicorum, vols. 1-3, ed. by V. A. Tcherikover, A. Fuks, and M. Stern (Cambridge, MA: Harvard university Press, 1957-1964

Josephus, ’The Jewish War’, trans. by William Whiston, in ‘Complete Works’ (Nashville: Thomas Nelson) (J.W)

Origen, ‘Ep. ad Africanum’ 20 (I4) (ed. de Lange, Sources Chretiennes 302 (1983), 566)

Pliny the Younger, ‘Pliny the Younger, Letters’, Loeb Classical Library  <; [accessed 23 July 2015]

Pliny the Younger, ’The Letters of the Younger Pliny’, trans. by Betty Radice, Penguin Classics (London: Penguin Books) (Epistles)

Suetonius, ‘Suetonius – The Twelve Caesars (De Vita Caesarum)’, trans. by Robert Graves, Penguin Classics (London: Penguin Books)

Modern Sources & Further Reading

Barclay, John M G. 1996. ‘The Jews of the Diaspora’, in Early Christian Thought in Its Jewish Context (Cambridge: CUP), pp.27–40

Barclay, John M G. 1996. Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora (Edinburgh: T&T Clark)

Goodman M. 2007a. Rome & Jerusalem The Clash of Ancient Civilisations (London: Allen Lane)

Goodman M.  2007b. ‘The Meaning of “Fisci Iudaici Calumnia Sublata” on the Coinage of Nerva’, in Shaye J.D. Cohen and J.J. Schartz (eds.), Studies in Josephus and the Varieties of Ancient Judaism, Louis H. Feldman Jubilee Volume (Leiden/Boston MA: Brill), pp.81–89

Heemstra, Marius. 2010a. The Fiscus Judaicus and the Parting of the Ways (Tübingham: Mohr Siebeck)

Heemstra, Marius. 2010b.‘The Interpretation and Wider Context of Nerva’s Fiscus Judaicus Sestertius’, in Judea and Rome in Coins 65 BCE – 135 CE (London: Spink), pp.187–202

Heemstra, Marius. 2014. ‘The Fiscus Judaicus: Its Social and Legal Impact and a Possible Relation with Josephus’ Antiquities’, in Jews and Christians in the First and Second Centuries: How to Write Their History, ed. by Joshua Schwartz and Peter J. Tomson (Boston: Leiden Brill)

Richardson, P. and M.B. Shukster. 1983. ‘Barnabas, Nerva, and the Yavnean Rabbis’, Journal of Theological Studies, 34, pp.31–35


[1] CPJ 421.162-65; 170-74; 183-84.

[2] Suetonius: Domitian 12.2;

[3] The annual 2 denarii tax paid by all adult male Jews  between the ages of 20 & 50 to the Jerusalem Temple

[4] Suetonius: Domitian 12.

[5] Heemstra 2010a: p81.

[6] Suetonius: Domitian 12.2.

[7] Perhaps reflecting or creating the situation later under Trajan – see Pliny’s letters.

[8] Heemstra 2010b: p187.

[9] Barclay 1996: p313; Goodman 1989: p40;  but Goodman 2007b: pp469-75; 2007c: pp81-9; argued that the lack of tax receipts from Nerva’s reign might indicate that the tax was temporarily abolished. Most other scholars disagree. See also Richardson and Shukster 1983: pp42-4.

[10] Origen, Ep. ad Africanum 20.